It was dark, wet, and traumatic moment at 4 A.M. when Phong Bui was finally able to get into his Greenpoint studio. He had been prepared for water, but not for Sandy, and the flooding had drowned his life’s work of drawings, writings, and books.
Today, he’s standing at the center of his sprawling group show, Come Together: Surviving Sandy Year 1, at Industrial City in Sunset Park, where he’s curated dozens of artists in a massive 100,000 ft gallery space whose lives and works were swallowed by the Sandy one year ago.
“Doing the show is kind of a good healing process for me,” said Bui. “In the artist community, many lost a lifetime’s work.”
Bui wears many hats these days – an artist, writer, independent curator, and publisher of the Brooklyn Rail – but he reckons that 92 per cent of the archives of 25 years of work got lost in the flood, despite having raised everything three feet off the ground.
“I think the most frightening thing about Sandy was the silt content, which has a major erosive power,” he said. “It ate everything. All the pigment, all the materials. what remained is basically paper.”
In the year since Sandy, artists and galleries in Chelsea and Brooklyn have reeled from the effects of the storm. Galleries had nothing to hang on their walls for a couple show cycles, artists were left with unsalvageable works and destroyed archives, and theatre groups staged shows without costume archives.
Amy Hughes, who is a paper conservator, volunteered for the American Institute for Conservations CERT team, which stands for Collections Emergency Response Team, offering advice after the storm around the gallery districts.
“It was a very intensely emotional experience to be down there in Chelsea after the storm hit, it was a total disaster area even a week after,” said Hughes. “People were just getting things out of their basements, and things were just destroyed.”
Groups like CERT, which was begun after Hurricane Katrina and Rita, were instrumental in helping artists stabilize or recover parts of their work. As a federally-funded organization, their mandate is usually to help cultural institutions like museums and libraries, but after Sandy, they were able to raise private funds and partner with a number of New York based institutions to set up a volunteer-run Cultural Recovery Center, also at Industrial City.
“After Sandy, it was just so clear that there were for-profit galleries or individual artist studios that were just stranded,” said Eric Pourchot, of AIC. “Sandy had such a huge impact on the arts community in New York.”
The center was open from December to March, and over the four month period volunteers assisted 21 artists in stabilizing, cleaning, or making it safe to handle over 3750 art objects. Alot of the tasks centered around rinsing works, removing residues, or vacuuming out mold formed between the canvas and stretcher.
“The goal was honestly anything that didn’t end up in the trash [after Sandy] was something that could be saved,” he said.
Though the main aims were to stabilize works, CERT also played a role in collecting donations of artist supplies to help people start creating new works.
“For some people, everything was just wiped out,” said Pourchot. “Not only their life work, but their supplies were ruined. Their paint, their brushes – everything they needed to create new work.”
Artist assistance groups all over the country, like CERF+, which exists to give craft artists with financial assistance after emergencies, responded to the needs of Sandy-affected artists.
“People who were prepared, weren’t prepared for the magnitude of Sandy,” said Craig Nutt, Director of Programs at CERF+, noting that many artists just didn’t have file backups or archives stored in a distant enough place that the same disaster wouldn’t affect it.
“We’re trying to help artists because we think artists are very important to the recovery of communities after emergencies,” said Nutt.
Many organizations like these had learned alot of lessons following similar hurricanes in the south, even if the learnings weren’t translated to artists in New York until it was too late.
“After Katrina, we saw that artists were prepared to evacuate [their homes], but hardly anyone thought to have an evacuation kit for their studio,” he said. “There’s things you don’t think about if you haven’t been through it.”
For the future, artists have learned to insure works, store important things in higher places, and keep digital copies of whatever they can.
“Natural disasters and other events like a pipe bursting or your sprinkler system going off can happen really at any time to anyone in the country, so it’s important to have a plan of action,” said Hughes.
“I think of the main thing people learned is not to store important things in the basement,” she added.